John Hall is known for his photo-realist still-life paintings, which have been exhibited internationally. The work in this exhibition called Souvenir represents a selection from different series painted over the last twenty years. During this time, Hall taught at the University of Calgary, from which he retired in 1997, becoming Professor Emeritus. He now lives in Kelowna. As a kind of mini-retrospective, this selection of work serves as a souvenir of sorts of this artistís recent career. At the same time, it acknowledges the subject matter that appears in many of his paintings.
The acrylic on canvas paintings in Souvenir are compositions of a wide range of objects including rubber stamps, polythene, toys, candy and other assorted ephemera as well as fruit and vegetables in various stages of decomposition. Configured as still-lifes, these objects are painted vividly, reflecting the seductive colour and shiny surfaces of the objects. The artist rejects a painterly approach towards his subject matter in favour of one absent from the trace of brushstrokes, built-up surfaces and gesture. The resulting flattened surface supports the illusion of a photograph more than it does a painting and projects the air of a snapshot.
In Rain (1994 -2004), a worn doll inhabits the composition along with streamers, plastic, coloured, and crumpled paper, as well Cajeta, a goat milk candy that looks like a round of cheese, and rotting fruit. While the painting is colourful, bright and inviting, its subject could represent the detritus from a party the night before, spilled from a garbage bag. In comparison, Cielo Vespertino (1993), depicting the same toy inside a cage beside a clutch of what appears to be fire crackers and vegetable shaped fridge magnets, is more precisely arranged. In the case of these paintings and indeed many of the others that appear in this exhibition there seems to be a lack of material that is precious or that possesses an enduring quality.
In Flame and Blizzard (1988), Hall incorporates likenesses of Olympic mascots and other mementos. In Nuclear Fever (1994), plastic Mounties and, among other things, a jean jacket and assorted badges fill the canvas. Though many of these objects, some might argue, have a collectible quality to them, like the material in Rain, few people would be surprised to find them in the garbage.
The size of the paintings the artist makes imbue there similarly amplified subject matter with a sense of importance that is not in keeping with the nature of the objects themselves. Shiny plastic or brightly coloured candies, though appealing, are unimportant and just as we might tire of these objects in real life in short order we might question their inclusion in these paintings.
Souvenir comprises of work from different series over a number of years. At times Hall has explicitly sought to blend the genre of Still life with portraiture. In work like Listen, for instance, Hall asked his subject, artist Chris Cran, to select a series of objects that had particular meaning to him. Arranging, then painting them, the artist conceives of this work as a portrait. Similarly, in other work not included in this exhibition, Hall produced portraits in which the subjectís workspace, or the contents of their drawer stood in for the person him or herself. In paintings like Bruise of Tragedy and Tattoo, the objects, which have a sense of the personal, suggest an individual and leave us to ponder their character.
In this same sense, we can recognize in paintings like Cielo Vespertino, Nuclear Fever, Blizzard and Flame something familiar, the inescapable glitz and hype that pervades the world we inhabit. Rampant consumerism and materialism occupy the heart of these paintings that ultimately reflect the values of a particular time and place. Portraits themselves, these paintings divulge something of our collective social values.
The rotting produce in a number of these paintings is a sobering counterpoint to the glitz. More than a visual foil, however, it lends an unsettling element that hints at corruption and the notion that all is not well. Hall capitalizes on the alluring qualities of his subject. By scaling it up in size, however he leads us to question the absurd importance we place on objects that are ultimately meaningless. While this might lead to a general questioning of our social values, it has particular ramifications in an overly privileged society that seems to celebrate disposability and holds little regard for the consequences.
Souvenir reflects John Hallís practice as an artist and stands as a kind of social portrait of our time. His virtuoso paintings pop with a vibrancy that is immediately enticing and if they were purely alluring, they would be remarkably enjoyable paintings. Subtly veiled by this riot of glitz and colour there is a current of social critique that runs through these works that prompts us to think, and to consider what lurks beneath the surface.
Two Rivers Art Gallery
Prince George BC, Canada